1984 Study Guide

In 1984, George Orwell presents his vision of dystopia, a world consisting of three massive totalitarian states constantly at war with each other and using technological advancements to keep their respective Party members and masses under careful observation and control. Written in 1948 and published in 1949, this novel is often touted as one of the greatest novels written in the English language.

In writing the work, Orwell was influenced and inspired by totalitarian regimes of the time, including Hitler's Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. Both regimes glorified their respective leaders as demi-gods and saviors, required the destruction of all individuality in order to promote the Party's needs over the individual's, demanded absolute loyalty from their citizens, and resorted to violence whenever disloyalty was suspected. Moreover, both regimes consistently demonized their enemies, just as the Party and Big Brother do in 1984, through the Two Minutes Hate, Hate Week, and daily mass propaganda. Other parallels include the Thought Police as a reinvention of the Gestapo, NKVD (People's Comissariat for Internal Affairs), which orchestrated large scale purges and terror, and the Spies and Youth League as a reinvention of the Hitler Youth and the Little Octoberists, which indoctrinated young people to the Party and encouraged them to report disloyalty observed in their elders, even among family members.

The similarities between 1984's Oceania and Stalin's regime are particularly striking. Like Stalin, the Oceanian government embraces characteristics of both fascist and communist authoritarianism: the former glorifies the wisdom of the leader, and the latter, the infallibility of the Party. We can see both trends in 1984, where Big Brother (albeit apparently a fictitious entity) is worshipped as a wise and loving leader, and the Party is practically structured around its own supposed infallibility. In addition, many of the particulars of the Oceanian system, such as the Three-Year Plans and the forced labor camps, appear to be thinly veiled allusions to aspects of Stalin's rule. It is even often suggested that Oceania's Big Brother, with his dark hair and heavy mustache, is inspired by the larger-than-life images of Josef Stalin's visage so commonly seen in the Soviet Union.

Orwell's time working with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma introduced him to the shameful activities of the British in the Far East, and appears to have encouraged his exploration of the lives of the urban poor. After returning to Europe, Orwell continued to focus on this subject and began to develop a vague distrust of machine-age capitalist society that later blossomed into a firm adherence to Socialism, bolstered by his time working with the revolutionary Marxist POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista, or Worker's Party of Marxist Unification), the dissident faction of the Spanish Communist party. However, when the Stalin-backed Communists turned on their far-left anarchist allies and labeled POUM pro-fascist, Orwell fled to avoid prison, or worse, death. This experience taught Orwell the danger of abandoning true Socialist revolutionary ideals, and he developed both a fixation on totalitarianism and an abhorrence for Stalinist Communism, both of which are clearly expressed in 1984. World War II's introduction of totalitarianism through fascist and communist regimes solidified Orwell's hatred of the ideology.

During the war, Orwell was equally unimpressed by his experience in Britain. From 1940-1943, Orwell was employed by the BBC, under the control of the British Ministry of Information, which served as inspiration for Winston's position at the Ministry of Truth, and perhaps for Newspeak. In this capacity, Orwell witnessed the propagation of stories glorifying Britain's triumphs while the British Empire was simultaneously steadily declining. This type of disconnect between reality and the information disseminated to the public clearly makes its way into the novel.

It is unclear to what extent Orwell believed 1984 to be an accurate prediction of the future, but many critics agree that he wrote the book as a warning to modern society of the damage that can come from embracing totalitarian regimes. The novel mourns the loss of personal identity while demonstrating how to effectively rid a person of their independence, particularly through extensive sexual repression and the prohibition of individual thought. Many of the concepts and themes presented in 1984 have steadily made their way into the common vernacular. For instance, the phrase "Big Brother" is often used to refer to the advancement and expansion of technology used to observe and record behavior, such as video cameras placed on city streets and government monitoring of phone and Internet communication. The adjective "Orwellian" is also commonly used to describe such real-world developments reminiscent of 1984.

Orwell wrote 1984 while seriously ill with tuberculosis, and afterward commented that had he not been so ill, the book might not have been so bleak. To his consternation, after its publication, 1984 was used as propaganda itself, especially by Western forces in post-World War II Germany. Much later, there were many attempts to censor the novel, particularly on the grounds that it contains pro-Communist material and sexual references. The book has also been adapted to both television shows and movies, and has served as inspiration for a variety of other artistic endeavors, such as David Bowie's Diamond Dogs album, which includes a song titled 1984.